The question of silent protagonists came about during a discussion of what makes a good character in a game. Is it the personality, the situation they find themselves in and how they deal with it, where they “fit” in the game, or a combination of all those factors and more?
There likely is no set rubric to define what is or isn’t a good character, but to look at it in a case-by-case basis, as the context and goal of any particular game varies wildly. With that said, can one consider any type of character across the board as either great or poor?
I would argue that there has not yet been a single instance of a silent protagonist in a game that was used in such a creative way as to function as key to understanding the game’s message or story. By that I mean there was nothing unique to that particular silent protagonist that made it key to understanding a game or its story. It could have easily been swapped for some other kind of silent protagonist, from man to woman, plumber to physicist, and had a similar effect.
Before exploring the pitfalls of a silent protagonist, lets first look at what makes a good character overall. One can measure a character by examining a few questions: Does the character’s personality (or identity) match his/her actions in the game? Does the character’s personality (or identity) fit the tone of the game? Does the character change (develop)?
There are definitely more questions to be asked about a character, but those three cover most of what should be considered when discussing a good character within a game. To understand what a good character truly means, I will use the example of John Marston from Red Dead Redemption.
Does the character’s personality (or identity) match his/her actions in the game? Personality is an all-encompassing word, meaning how the character acts and believes, as well as their past. John Marston is a reformed criminal living out his days peacefully on a ranch until one day agents of the government arrive to force Marston back to that life so he can catch other criminals for them.
In lighter moments, we see him as sarcastic and rebellious against those that tell him what to do. In the darker moments, we understand that the deep love of his family is the only thing in the entire game that overpowers his reluctance of action. What he has to do is terrible, even though it is to criminals and other evildoers.
Understanding that deep love explains those actions and knowing his past life as a criminal explains why he has the ability to do such things throughout the game, like his ability to shoot. So yes, his actions are entirely within the bounds of his established character and do not contradict them. It’s not as if he was the average person suddenly thrust into a position where using a gun was commonplace and somehow, inexplicably, he/she was quite good at using it.
Does the character’s personality (or identity) fit the tone of the game? I think the nature of the protagonist answers that question in most cases. John Marston sets the tone of Red Dead Redemption. His feelings and emotions are what the game tries to convey in the various situations that he finds himself in.
We are supposed to feel angry or sad because of the injustices committed against John and those that attempt to make him fail. Our contempt for manipulation and blackmail arises from the situation that Marston is forced into, where he has to return to a life he now hates, just so he can continue living the way he wants.
John Marston happens to be a good example of a character setting the tone for a game, but I don’t think that is always the case. Red Dead Redemption just happens to be a character driven game, but the setting or plot points about various characters may drive other games. In those cases, the characters have to make sense within that tone.
For example, a game with a bleak and rundown setting where everyone is oppressed and lethargic, a character that is depressed and has little will to act and move on would make sense. As would a character that rebels against that setting because he/she realizes just how poor of a situation it is and wishes for something more. So tone is not always set by the protagonist, John Marston is just a good example of when it is.
Does the character change (develop)? John’s development is complicated because he is a complicated character in a unique position. When we meet John, he is already a reformed man living peacefully on his ranch with his family. He has already changed from something that was entirely different to what he was at that point.
However, that does not mean that his journey to work for the government was not full of life changing moments. As said before, John approaches everything he has to do with reluctance. He has to work for and with vile men, including the agents that forced him to do their work.
If anything, that reluctance deepens the further along he goes on his journey. He has to work for vile men, some of which betray him, so that John can meet his ends. There is no doubt that the “temptation” for a criminal life is forever gone from him. He instead rebels against that kind of corruption, for example, when he takes up against a corrupt Mexican governor, Colonel Allende.
His change is not as dramatic as you may find in some characters, but he further deepens his convictions that the choice for the peaceful life on the ranch was the correct one – that his sacrifices for the good of his family are worth it.
A good character has explainable motivations, makes sense within its setting, and develops over time.
Read Part 2 to find out how a silent protagonist does none of those things.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments below!